Well this was a devastating read!!
Telling the tale, as it does of Agnes Magnúsdóttir:
‘Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last person to be executed in Iceland, convicted for her role in the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson on the night between the 13th and 14th of March 1828, at Illugastadir, on the Vatnsnes Peninsula, North Iceland.’
There were no surprises as to the ending, but the further I read through, right up until the last page I was willing history to be changed, for Agnes to pardoned and her life to be saved. Why was I rooting so hard for a murderess? Well Hannah Kent has in her words to:
‘This novel has been written to supply a more ambiguous portrayal of this woman’
She does this by recounting the run-up to the murders, partly in the first person narrative that Agnes gives to her chosen priest, Assistant Reverand Tóti Jónsson who is to prepare her spiritually for her death and later to Magrét Jónsson whose farm she was sent to while awaiting her execution. We also have an omnipresent third person narrator who lends a wider view of the crime committed, and of Agnes herself. From this we get an alternative view of how and why Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson came to be slayed with a knife and a hammer one night. It would take the hardest of hearts not to feel some sympathy for Agnes, not because the author tells us so, oh no, far cleverer than that Hannah Kent paints a captivating picture of the coldness, darkness and sheer bleakness of life in nineteenth century Iceland alongside the more common tale of a woman deceived by her lover. For Natan and Agnes were lovers; it was for Natan she’d left the comparatively well-populated life in the valley farms as a workmaid to follow him to more or less entire seclusion in Illugastadir.
‘All my life people have thought I was too clever. Too clever by half, they’d say. And you know what Reverend? That’s exactly why they don’t pity me. Because they think I’m too smart, too knowing to get caught up in this by accident.’
Hannah Kent has used the Icelandic sagas as a base to weave the story around, many of the characters we meet prefer these sagas to the Christian teaching of the church. Through this we have the subtle yet powerful lyrical narrative that had me drawn into Agnes’s tale.
‘My tongue feels so tired; it slumps in my mouth like a dead bird, all damp feathers, in between the stones of my teeth.’
With its references to the superstitions of the day frequently referencing the ravens I came to dread their appearance fearing what horrors they may be about to foretell despite being in a nice warm cosy home not a home where the boards hiding the dung used to build the walls had been sold to enable the family of Jón Jónsson to eat. The feelings of the household to the newly billeted prisoner are also deftly drawn with a light touch. It is a supposed honour which comes with compensation but one that can’t be refused despite the concerns of both Jón and Magrét about the spiritual and moral welfare of both their daughter.
I can’t praise the author for the haunting simplicity of the writing in this book, although as the story worked its way towards its tragic ending, I was heartbroken.
‘They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men and now they must steal mine.’
If you, like me, didn’t get around to reading this when it was first published, I urge you to, this book which does not flinch from the realities of Agnes’s life and death should not be missed.